I arrived as a professor at Birzeit University in the summer of 1991, and it so happened that the university had been shut down, as was often the case, by the Israeli occupation authorities. Despite the difficult situation faced by the university, and by the whole of occupied Palestine, towards the end of the First Intifada, I was appointed as a professor in the department of history and geographical and political sciences (which later split into three departments). At the time, I was a recent graduate of one of Europe’s oldest universities (Tübingen in Germany), where educational and pedagogical resources were abundant, so how was I to teach at a shuttered university? What to do about the lack of a library, not to mention a range of other necessities? I was given a schedule: one class was to take place in the building housing the university’s board of trustees in Ramallah, another at the Ramallah Friends (Quakers) School, and a third in the headquarters of a non-governmental association for family revitalization. Classes were spread out among various institutions in the twin cities of Ramallah and al-Bireh, and usually took place after their normal operating hours.
Of course, I was no stranger to the Birzeit experience, since I was myself a graduate, and considered myself part of its early history. I had lived through various forms of oppression, surveillance, and prohibition. But a student’s experience is nothing like a professor’s. What surprised me most as a professor was the level of commitment shown by students, which stemmed from their defiance and their insistence on pursuing their studies in an environment that was scarcely able to afford the bare necessities of university life. I don’t remember ever having to check attendance. Hardly anyone went absent despite the fact that the seats in the makeshift classrooms were highly uncomfortable and that amenities were non-existent. I never dragged my feet to go meet my students. Instead, I raced to each class to make sure that my students hadn’t been arrested and to see to it that I was the first one there in case the occupation forces showed up to deny us our right to education. At that time, the total number of students was relatively low, but the student body was more diverse. Students came from all over Palestine, including Gaza, the Galilee, Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, and Jenin -- almost every corner of Palestine. That has changed greatly over time, even though the student body now numbers 14,000 students, since students come primarily from the central West Bank. We began to notice this shift around 1998, and it influenced the very character of the university. The change was undoubtedly the result of the closure of the West Bank and its separation from the Gaza Strip, as well as the proliferation of checkpoints everywhere. Freedom of movement became severely limited, and other universities began to be established in all major Palestinian cities and towns.
That was not the only memorable experience, for Birzeit lived through a number of similar experiences, managing to survive and adapt incredibly well, to an extent that seems impossible in retrospect. I can recall when the road between Birzeit and nearby Ramallah was blocked by a dirt barrier and the asphalt was dug up by the occupation forces, and it was transformed into an unpaved road. Large cement barriers were put in place to prevent cars and people from reaching their destination. This occurred in 2000 in the wake of the Second Intifada. We adapted simply by climbing over the dirt barriers. Students walked several kilometers daily to access the campus and on several occasions we even removed the dirt barriers, only to have them restored by the occupation’s bulldozers and earth-movers. (They were finally removed for good on December 3, 2003.) The barriers were themselves the scenes of numerous confrontations between the students and the occupation forces.
All these memories come back to me now, as I sit in front of my computer screen and try to access my students. The board of trustees took the decision to close the university on March 7, 2020, to avoid the spread of the coronavirus and the university has put in place an advanced program for remote teaching. It allows teachers to deliver their lectures synchronously by means of technology. Every registered student can attend, follow along, and even ask questions. But I haven’t been able to acclimate to this new system, which lacks the human touch that I know so well and makes me feel as though I am addressing a void. I’ve tried to resist, but I’m required to offer an alternative, according to the university administration’s decision. At one point I resorted to writing out my lectures and posting them alongside the required readings. But many students responded by saying that the language was difficult to comprehend and contained many terms that required explanation. They said that it did not resemble my oral lectures, which were more articulate, and that they would understand the material better if I just spoke to them.
So I found myself in a bind. On the one hand, my students wanted something more easily digestible, but on the other hand I couldn’t adapt to the program of remote teaching and learning. I tried my best to acclimate, but it wasn’t easy for someone who entered the technological era relatively late in life. Finally, I decided to record my lectures in film clips that I uploaded to a Dropbox folder. I sent my students the links so that they could watch them at their leisure. But I feel despondent talking to a screen, since I can’t read my students’ expressions and have no means of measuring the extent of their comprehension, admiration, agreement, rejection, dismissal, criticism, support, and so on. These expressions are critical indicators for a teacher in the classroom, which lead to encouragement or revision, as the case may be.
I fully understand the importance of not losing an entire semester, but remote teaching bears no relation to a multidimensional university education. It does not allow real interaction between students and teachers, or between students themselves, either during a class session or afterwards. Sources of knowledge have undeniably been transformed in recent years and the internet is an endless font of information. I admit that it can sometimes serve as a decent alternative to teaching and to self-education, but education has never been a matter of pumping information. If that were the case, a library would be a substitute for a university and the internet could become our sole source of knowledge. Pedagogy is an interactive affair, it concerns ways of thinking, methods of analysis, means of participation, and the creation of political and cultural communities, among many other things. I am quite certain that remote teaching offers no joy to teachers and is therefore incapable of providing pleasure to students. To be perfectly honest, I would prefer cancelling the academic semester to pushing it through in this way.